The American Psychological Association just released its “Stress in America” survey for 2022.
Its findings are not surprising.
In fact, the title of the APA press release summarizes our collective feelings: “Inflation, war push stress to alarming levels at two-year COVID-19 anniversary.”
From global concerns to domestic issues, the world offers us much to worry about and much to fear.
Yet, as Christians, we are called to “fear not” over and over.
So how might we “fear not” in a worldwide time of crisis?
What does the Bible say about fear?
The Bible has a lot to say about fear. Hundreds of passages address the topic, which suggests God knows what a struggle it can be for humans to manage our fear.
That there are so many references testifies to the vital importance God places on his people not to be dominated, possessed, controlled or impaired by fear. And Christians need not be characterized by the distress and angst that fear brings.
On the contrary, our lives ought to demonstrate a pattern of fearing not.
Many of the biblical passages about fear (e.g., Isaiah 41:13; Luke 2:10) take a particular form:
- Instruction: “Fear not”
- Explanation: “for I am with you,” “for I bring you good news.”
It is not so much a demand as an exhortation or a plea: we don’t need to fear because of our relationship with God.
Herein lies the key for dealing with fear from a Christian perspective.
So how do we actualize our hope?
Let’s seek an improved cognitive grasp of the topic and see if changes in our thinking, understanding, and definition of the problem result in less fear and more hope.
What is fear?
Fear is a product and part of our human nature. It is a feeling. In itself, it is amoral—neither good nor bad, right or wrong—just an emotion. Most would say fear is undesirable or unpleasant, a feeling preferably avoided.
However, what we do with or under the influence of fear certainly may have moral implications.
Fear is an emotion produced by a brain alarm being tripped and screaming out forcefully that there is imminent, grave danger. Fear is the “feeling part” of a powerful warning system God designed to help us function more safely. Fear alerts, drives, and motivates the frightened to do something about perceived threats or threatening circumstances.
True rational fear is a healthy response to real danger. God’s design is that we perceive danger, the alarm sounds, and we feel the fear that reasonably goes with that level of threat. The fear then drives a response of some sort in order to reduce the threat. Once the threat is addressed effectively, the emotional response then decreases or goes away.
When the danger appraisal is accurate, healthy fear results: the system is functioning as designed to protect. There’s the perception of a fire so the alarm goes off. Fear follows, which, being so unpleasant, directs and inspires actions to reduce it. Once addressed, the alarm stops and resets.
When the danger appraisal is totally inaccurate (the belief of being at risk when not) or substantially exaggerated (the belief of being at much higher risk than is true), toxic and damaging levels of fear ensue. With repetition, or under massive amounts of danger, it is as if the brain starts giving off danger warnings at the least provocation—or with no provocation at all. At the extreme, this tends to produce a fearful person rather than a person who occasionally feels fear and may lead to a diagnosable anxiety disorder
When the system functions healthily, as designed, fear is a transient, situational emotion that helps increase safety levels. Troubles with toxic fear happen as a result of over-reaction due to misinterpretation or mislabeling (exaggerating) the threat level, or when there is no option available for its reduction or escape, i.e., when there is no way to address and reduce danger.
Fear is adaptive when it is in proportion to an actual risk. Fear may not be desirable, but it is helpful in the quest to survive safely.
3 facts about fear
To handle fear more effectively, let’s consider three important characteristics of how our fear reaction system works.
1. Fear is always future-oriented.
Fear is anticipatory; it predicts and portends a dire coming set of circumstances. Fear is not about something in the past, though it is certainly possible to be hurt or sad or angry about what has already occurred. Fear is about what is or might be on the way—in Texas jargon, what is “fixing” to happen. We don’t fear what happened yesterday but what might happen tomorrow. It’s getting ahead of one’s self, e.g., having catastrophe emotions in anticipation of, rather than in response to, an event. Fear is a cart before the horses which never works.
As a remedy, we must commit to live in the present, the only place where we really have any influence. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Getting caught up in tomorrow’s worries today renders us less effective both then and now. God wants us to seek bread daily. Thinking and planning as if we know what the future holds is an illusion at best and sheer folly at worst.
We should quit telling ourselves that we know what’s coming and that it’s going to be bad. Who can add as much as an hour to life by worrying? (Luke 12:25). Instead, let’s re-surrender to God. Let’s seek and value what he wants more than what we want—every day!
We don’t need to try to control tomorrow.
2. Fear is the result of danger and dependent on perceiving or labeling danger.
Like beauty, danger is in the eye of the beholder. Each requires judgment, interpretation, or evaluation, all of which are matters of opinion and subject to misperception.
My wife tells a story of taking a childhood car trip to San Francisco with her elderly grandparents, who had spent their whole lives in rural East Texas. As they approached the pier, the couple grabbed all the kids and shouted, “Get back! Get back! Don’t get so close!” as if anticipating the ocean would rise up and consume them from afar.
The assumption or attribution of danger is a choice, a meaning we give rather than a construct.
As a remedy, we must stop constantly telling ourselves that we are in danger. We must limit our exposure to those who continue to do so, whether in real-life, in print, or on a screen. We must be vigilant in catching and challenging thoughts that exaggerate risk. If God is for us, who or what can be against us (Romans 8:31)? We must quit telling ourselves scary stories and putting scary endings on events that might never come to pass.
3. Fear is prone to false alarms.
The part of our brains that matters in generating fear cannot tell the difference between a situation where the perception of danger at its root is an accurate appraisal of reality—that I am truly in serious danger which needs desperately to be addressed—and a situation in which assigning huge danger is the result of misperception.
The emotion-generating parts of our minds, the ones that produce fear, cannot tell the difference between a true assessment of the danger level and an exaggerated one. This is to say that the brain generates fear even in response to a “false alarm.” Fear ensues when events are thought of as perilous even without regard to the accuracy of that assessment.
As a remedy, let’s recognize that the brain tends to find or confirm what is looked for or expected. I like to think of it as a tiny radar sitting on my shoulder, looking for peril as a way of protecting me. If I have a scanner, it means:
- I’m likely to find more of what I’m looking for.
- And I’m likely to react strongly.
This is called confirmation bias and it will paralyze. After a while, I begin to have “rattlesnake reactions” to sticks.
We should contemplate and question the assumptions we make about the things of which we’re afraid. We should consciously evaluate the accuracy of our attribution of danger.
Ask yourself two questions:
- “What am I telling myself that is making me so anxious?”
- “Is it true?”
3 ways to manage fear in a time of crisis
As the 2022 “Stress in America” survey attests, we are living in some of the most potentially threatening, challenging days of our lives.
What needs to be going on in the head of a Christian believer who is living in truly “dangerous days”? How can we cope more effectively?
Let’s look at three categories for improvement.
1. Reinvigorate your physical health.
One irony about dealing with stress and emotional distress is that we often abandon good habits right when they’re needed most. Among these is caring for our bodies.
Fear unleashes a cascade of what are often called “stress hormones” that, over time, can damage the body. We need to respond by increasing rather than decreasing attention to our “temples.”
Specifically, there are three big areas to address. None of these are surprising, but they are often the first practices we stop when stressed:
- Get quality rest.
- Maintain (or establish) good eating habits.
2. Maintain your social health.
Maintain good people connections and contacts. Humans are, at a very fundamental level, social beings who need interpersonal contact to function well. Continue to do the things with other people that you do in less challenging times and even consider adding more.
In Hebrews 10:25, the author charges us not to neglect meeting together for good reason. Being with family and loved ones can be a huge source of psychological comfort. We need to talk about our challenges with others of like mind. We are to bear and share each other’s burdens.
3. Focus on your spiritual health.
Most powerful and needful of all is close attention to our spiritual health in times of fear.
The seasons when we are in distress and feel weakest are often when we are in a position to gain the most, spiritually speaking (2 Corinthians 12:9). Remind yourself of who you are and, more importantly, whose you are. Rededicate yourself to God; remember, reflect on, and restore the joy of your salvation as David sought (Psalm 51:12).
Meditate on his goodness and on other scriptural passages that speak especially to you. Spend time memorizing Scripture. Perhaps do a study on the idea of dying to self (Luke 9:23) and what that might entail.
My personal favorite spiritual practice is to visualize and revel in what I consider a very powerful and picturesque passage, long ago memorized and dusted off every time fear knocks:
“When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. ‘Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?’ the servant asked.
“‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’
“And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:15–17 NIV).
Don’t be afraid.
“The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).